Common Failure Modes in Business Relationship Management – Part 2


hindenbergThis is the second in a series of  posts about common failure modes I come across in the deployment of a Business Relationship Management (BRM) role and/or capability.

In Part 1 in this series I discussed two common failure modes:

  • Failure Mode #1: Where the BRM is positioned as the “Single Point of Contact” between a provider organization (typically an IT organization) and their business clients. The Single Point of Contact role is often introduced in response to a common symptom—the business client is unclear who to contact for what. In other words, the root cause is lack of organization clarity, and the false belief is that by appointing a BRM (or whatever label you use) as a Single Point of Contact, the organizational dysfunctionality arising from lack of clarity will be mitigated.
  • Failure Mode #2: BRM As “Dumping Ground” when the BRM becomes a “catch all” for requests that nobody else wants to deal with, or that people are not sure who is supposed to deal with them. Again, lack of organizational clarity is a root cause here, and the types of problems this leads to are very similar to those identified above due to the Single Point of Contact failure mode.

Let’s look at a couple of other common BRM deployment failure modes.

Failure Mode #3: Strategic BRM when a Tactical BRM Is Needed

This is a very common BRM failure mode.  Here’s the common scenario:

For whatever reasons, a provider (typically, an IT organization) is seen to be not fully satisfying the demands and expectations of its business customers/clients (pick your favorite term—I’ve seen both terms as the preferred way of describing the entities a provider serves).  In response, the provider undertakes some type of capability improvement initiative (sometimes referred to as a ‘transformation’, ‘transition’, ‘realignment’, ‘refresh’, and so on.) The initiative often has several aspects, such as deployment of a Service Management Framework, Operating Model realignment, process management program, sourcing strategy, and deployment of a BRM role/capability.

Someone is nominated to lead the BRM deployment.  They do their research, perhaps retain some consulting advice, build their team, and with high hopes and a strong sense of “damn the torpedoes”, create and execute a deployment plan.

All this sounds reasonable, but the disconnect is that the vision of BRM to be deployed is that of a strategic relationship between provider and customer/client.  As such, the BRMs chosen to fill the role are relatively senior people, well-qualified to work with senior business executives with a focus on business demand shaping and business value realization. Meanwhile, Service Management, Operating Model realignment, Outsourcing, and so on are all underway. Just as a golfer determined to improve their golf swing knows, improvement initiatives are often accompanied by performance setbacks.  Imagine a golfer not only working on a new swing, but also using radically new clubs, a revolutionary new ball, wearing an innovative, experimental golf shoe, on a brand new course. With all these changes going on simultaneously, the performance degradation could take a while to pass through.

While the new BRM team is trying to foster new strategic partnerships, surfacing new, valuable, business demand, the ability for the provider to supply even basic services is seriously compromised. This is especially true with new major outsourcing arrangements, which can take a year to 18 months to settle down. The business partners quickly lose patience as the newly surfaced demand lays fallow in a backlog, and current services falter. It does not take long for one or both of two situations materialize:

  1. The BRMs get dragged into tactical firefighting.  This is ok, but it may be hard for them to reposition themselves back into the strategic role they were originally intended to fill.
  2. The BRMs are deemed to be not adding value—especially given that they are senior and relatively expensive resources.

Lesson 3: Don’t position the BRM as a Strategic when the context demands a Tactical BRM.

It is possible to migrate from Tactical to Strategic BRM, but it demands that the BRM has the competencies to be strategic, and it takes some skill and finesse to establish the medium to longer term vision for the strategic business relationship with the caveat that in the near term, the BRM will be part of the provider organization’s improvement efforts, and therefore mainly focused on essential, though tactical activities, such as service definition.

Failure Mode #4: Tactical BRM when a Strategic BRM Is Needed

This is less common than Failure Model #3 above, but is still quite common, especially when an organization has blindly followed the ITIL framework without sufficiently understanding their supply maturity context.  Here’s the scenario.

The provider has implemented a Service Management Framework such as ITIL, where they recognized they needed a BRM role. Some people from the Service Management function were appointed to BRM roles and deployed. The Service Management initiative has been effective, and the proverbial “lights stay on and trains run on time.”

After a while, the business customers/clients let the provider management know that their BRMs don’t add much value—things seem to work ok, and having folk in the BRM role seems like unnecessary overhead. Sometimes it is the provider management that comes to the conclusion that the BRM role has served its purpose and abandons it.

Meanwhile, there is little to no improvement in the business value that is realized from investments in the provider’s capabilities and assets. All the basics work well, the business’s ‘orders’ mostly get taken care of, but there’s a sense of general disappointment in the provider’s strategic and innovation capabilities.

Someone with the competencies and authority to be a strategic BRM can operate at a tactical level, but someone without those competencies cannot operate at a strategic level.  Tactical BRMs help to get the lights to stay on and the trains to run on time, but once those “table stakes” have been achieved, the tactical BRM will (to push the metaphor too far!) run out of steam!

Lesson 4: Don’t position the BRM as a Tactical when the context demands a Strategic BRM.

It is very difficult to migrate a purely tactical BRM to a Strategic role. They will be unlikely to have the experience and competencies to act as a true strategic partner, or to be granted the executive level access they need to be successful in the strategic BRM role.

What do you think?  What other failure modes have you seen?

 

Note: My next on-line BRMP Course is being held across 3 Mondays—July 7, 14 and 21, 2014. For details, please click here.

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Business Relationship Management Professional (BRMP®) Certification Exam Now Available


I am thrilled to join my Business Relationship Management Institute co-founders in the announcement of the worldwide availability of the Business Relationship Management Professional (BRMP®) certification exam.

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Note: My next on-line BRMP Course is being held across 3 Mondays—July 7, 14 and 21, 2014. For details, please click here.

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Common Failure Modes in Business Relationship Management – Part 1


UntitledRegular followers of this blog know that I’m a big believer in the potential for the role and discipline of Business Relationship Management (BRM). (In the interests of full disclosure, I’m also a co-founder of Business Relationship Management Institute, I teach course on Business Relationship Management, and serve as the Chief Examiner for APMG-International’s BRMP certification.)

I talk to a lot of BRMs, and have worked with many organizations trying to implement BRM—some of them on their third or fourth attempt! The good news is, they still believe in the importance of and potential for the BRM role. The bad news is, they’ve failed several times in their deployment of the role, and with each failure comes increased cynicism, and the familiar cries of, “This won’t work here!” and “This too shall pass!”

So, I’m going to devote a few (number to be determined!) posts to common failure modes I come across.

Failure Mode #1: BRM as “Single Point of Contact”

This is a common mistake, where the BRM is positioned as the “Single Point of Contact” between a provider organization (typically an IT organization) and their business clients. The Single Point of Contact role is often introduced in response to a common symptom—the business client is unclear who to contact for what. In other words, the root cause is lack of organization clarity, and the false belief is that by appointing a BRM (or whatever label you use) as a Single Point of Contact, the organizational dysfunctionality arising from lack of clarity will be mitigated.

This is a problem for several reasons:

  1. As a Single Point of Contact, the BRM quickly becomes overwhelmed. If they are effective at fielding calls, they will be called on more and more frequently, until they collapse under the weight of an ever-expanding appetite of questions to answer and issues to solve. If they are not effective at fielding calls, they just add to the dysfunctionality and further alienate the business client.
  2. The BRM quickly gets dragged into tactical issues.  As such, they are unable to add real value, and sooner or later are seen as ‘overhead’.  (And by wallowing in the tactical, they are indeed largely ‘overhead.’)
  3. The Single Point of Contact role tends to alienate key stakeholders on the provider side. Enterprise Architects, Strategic Planners, Portfolio and Program Managers, Business Analysts, for example, value their access to the business clients, and resent having to negotiate the “BRM Doorkeep” in order to gain that access.
  4. It addresses a symptom, not the root cause. You still have a lack of organizational clarity, and this leads to inefficiencies, poor communications, dropped balls and a chaotic, stressful work environment.

Lesson 1: Don’t position the BRM as a Single Point of Contact.

Better to position them as a ‘Single Point of Focus’, helping to connect to and orchestrate key provider roles. Establish the BRM as the “Account Owner” for business clients they serve. Account Ownership carries certain responsibilities and accountabilities. It also must be afforded certain commitments by other key provider stakeholders—primarily a commitment to keep the BRM, as “Account Owner” informed about any contact or activity with the business client.

Failure Mode #2: BRM As “Dumping Ground”

This is a variation on the “BRM as Single Point of Contact”, but happens when the BRM becomes a “catch all” for requests that nobody else wants to deal with, or that people are not sure who is supposed to deal with them. Again, lack of organizational clarity is a root cause here, and the types of problems this leads to are very similar to those identified above due to the Single Point of Contact failure mode.

I’ve seen this failure mode occur when the BRM role is announced without a clear definition of its purpose. Others in the provider organization fear that the BRM might invade their territory, but also see it as an opportunity to get rid of tasks they don’t like (or feel that someone else should be doing.)  So, at every opportunity, requests get deflected to the BRM:  “Oh, our BRM’s take care of that kind of thing.  Here’s an email address and phone number.  Bye!”

Lesson 2: Organizational Clarity is your biggest friend and is something you have to work towards.

Be proactive in defining the BRM role, with all it’s strategic implications and ways it helps to drive business value. Take the time to work with key stakeholders on the provider side to define “rules of engagement” and interaction models.  Take some common (and not so common) use cases, and work through the solutioning life cycle, from idea to retirement—which roles are engaged when and how? Define high-level SIPOC (Supplier, Inputs, Process, Outputs, Customer) models and ensure you have comprehensive understanding and buy-in from your colleagues. Reinforce the strategic, value creating purpose for the BRM role in your day-to-day behaviors.

We will examine some more BRM Failure Modes in the next post—please join me and subscribe to this blog by clicking on the link in the right sidebar.

Note: My next on-line BRMP Course is being held across 3 Mondays—July 7, 14 and 21, 2014. For details, please click here.

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The Disciplines of Business-IT Engagement


how-to-engage-employeesEngagement is a term often used when discussing the relationship between an IT organization and the business units it serves. It’s interesting (and amusing!) to look at the many meanings ascribed to the verb, “engage” (from Dictionary.com). Most of these apply quite well to the context of business-IT engagement:

  • Attract and hold by influence or power
  • Interlock with, mesh
  • Bind (as oneself) to do something
  • Provide occupation for, involve (engage him in a new project)
  • Arrange to obtain the use or services of, hire (engage a lawyer)
  • Hold the attention of, engross (her work engages her completely)
  • Induce to participate (engaged the shy boy in conversation)
  • Deal with especially at length
  • Pledge oneself, promise
  • To do or take part in something (engage in healthy activities)

Other definitions don’t fit quite as well (though sometimes it might seem as if they do!)

  • Entangle or entrap in or as if in a snare or bog
  • Enter into contest or battle with (engage the enemy)

Business-IT Engagement Defined

I like to think of Business-IT Engagement as a process through which business and IT stakeholders:

  1. Discover opportunities to create business value through IT capabilities, assets and investments.
  2. Prioritize those opportunities.
  3. Launch and govern projects and programs that capitalize on those opportunities.
  4. Ensure that the potential business value from those opportunities is fully realized.
  5. Determine how best to sustain and, when appropriate, retire the capabilities and business systems that were created to deliver that business value.

Business-IT Maturity and Engagement Characteristics

I’ve posted before about Business Demand and IT Supply Maturity, and a simple 3-Level Maturity Model. (For a short video about the Business-IT Maturity Model, see here, and for one of my earliest posts on the model, see here.)

Engagement Disciplines

Level 1 Engagement Characteristics

At Level 1 (the lowest level) business demand and IT supply maturity, engagement can be characterized as:

  • Reactive — especially from the IT side. At Level 1, IT is often seen to be an “order taker”, waiting for business stakeholders to generate requests for services or solutions.
  • Inside-out — the IT organization takes a very IT-centric view. Engagement is thought of in terms of IT projects and other IT activities.
  • Technology-centric — engagement is all about the technology – the hardware, software, systems and networks that are the IT organization’s ‘bread and butter’.
  • By and large, the overarching context for engagement is cost — “How will this take cost out of the business?”  “What will this cost us?”  Value rarely enters the discussion!

Level 2 Engagement Characteristics

At Level 2 (intermediate level), engagement tends to be:

  • Active — rather than simply waiting for orders from business stakeholders, IT establishes structures and mechanisms to be an active part of the demand management process. Often, frameworks such as ITIL and COBIT and structures such as Business Relationship Management are introduced when business-IT maturity enters Level 2.
  • Process-centric.  There’s two sides to this. On the IT side, as mentioned above, processes are established to surface and manage demand — whether that be for project-related work or for IT services. On the business side, Level 2 demand maturity is often characterized by business process management, and cross-business unit processes such as order-to-cash, hire-to-retire, procure-to-pay, etc. become significant initiatives, often in conjunction with ERP deployment or major alternate sourcing solutions.
  • Focused on solutions — the engagement is much more about business solutions than it is about the underlying technology.
  • Engagement tends to be dominated by a project context — who, how long, how much, what scope, and so on.

Level 3 Engagement Characteristics

At Level 2 (highest level), engagement can be characterized as:

  • Proactive — structures such as Business Relationship Management not only surface demand, they actually stimulate and shape it with regard to business value and innovation. IT engages in business strategy formulation, with business and IT strategy processes converging.
  • Outside-in — engagement is dominated by the business view rather than the inside-out IT view.
  • The focus of engagement is around key relationships, rather than technologies or solutions.
  • Business growth becomes the overarching raison d’être for engagement— not that taking out cost and supporting business operations is unimportant — it’s just a given.
  • Consistent with the focus on business growth, the context for engagement is business value — with implications for governance, measurement and accountability — implications that dramatically impact the business-IT relationship.

So, What’s An IT Leader to Do?

  1. Take a step back and consider the question — what do our business partners think about our behaviors around engagement?  Do they see us as reactive, active or proactive? Do they see us as coming from our own perspective, or from theirs? Do they perceive our goals to be aligned with theirs?
  2. Consider our perspective on the business engagement disciplines — are they all we would want them to be? If we could change them for ‘the better’, what changes would we like to see?
  3. Think about business relationships and/or past situations where business-IT engagement was productive, value-producing and a great experience for all — what was it about that/those situations that led them to be so positive? How could those special circumstances exist more often/more broadly?
  4. What 3 actions could be taken relatively easily to drive up engagement maturity? What is preventing those actions from being undertaken? How could you remove those barriers?
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Two Valuable Books for Business Relationship Managers


book%20review_65263741I frequently get asked to write book reviews on my blog and I almost always decline. But I had a couple of books on my “must read” list that I managed to get to over a recent vacation, and was sufficiently impressed that I decided to provide short reviews, even though the authors had not requested them!

A Must for Any IT Leader Trying to Elevate the Business Value of Technology

To be frank, I approached “Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, And Keeping It That Way” by Al Kuebler, with some trepidation!  I’ve read many books by successful CIO’s that somehow fall short of their promise. Not surprising, really, that the competencies demanded for success in the CIO suite do not necessarily translate into the competencies needed to write a really helpful, readable book about IT leadership. But this one did not disappoint at all!

Great Storytelling!

First, Al is a great story teller!  He has a rich experience, going back to roles in IT operations, through programming, systems programming, IT management, CIO and management consulting. He’s learned many powerful lessons in each of these roles, and is able to share these lessons through interesting and entertaining stories. Real life situations that anyone in IT can relate to make for great drama and a helpful backdrop against which to draw out challenges, tensions and leadership lessons.

Great Structure!

The book is structured and organized to be approached in any sequence that makes sense to the reader. It contains a “Book Map” that outlines areas of interest, such as “Aligning Expectations”, “Best Practices”, “Careers”, “Innovation”, and so on. Under each area of interest are typical questions the reader might be looking to answer, with Chapter references. I still approached the book in a more traditional and linear fashion because I was not looking at any particular area of interest, and I did not want to miss any of the many nuggets the book offered, but I appreciate how useful the Book Map concept could be to someone dealing with real fires they wanted to focus on at a point in time.

Great Insight!

I’ve never been a CIO, but I’ve consulted for over 20 years to hundreds of CIO’s in some of the largest and most successful companies in the world (and many that were not doing so well!) and I can attest that Al’s advice is pertinent, valuable and broadly applicable. He’s pragmatic and drills quickly to root causes. He brings a great balance of “quick fix” ideas that buy you time, with longer term approaches for continuous improvement. I very much appreciated the ways Al makes politics real and accessible—something that new IT leaders often struggle with.

I’m generally suspicious about advice that divides the world into ‘two kinds of people’—I find life far more complex and nuanced, so when I came to the chapter that distinguishes between what Al calls “performers” and “operators” I was skeptical. But I actually found Al’s treatment of this material to be valid and quite helpful.

Timeless!

Originally published in 2010, with revisions in 2011 and 2012, this book will have a long life—most of the issues are perennial, and will be applicable across industries, countries and cultures.

Well done, Al!  And thank you for taking the time to create such a useful, readable and even entertaining resource!

A Must for Any Business Relationship Manager (or Any Manager Who Recognizes the Importance of Relationships)

Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships” by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas was the second on my vacation reading list, and I glad that it was!  I’ve added it to my recommended reading for people taking my Business Relationship Management training courses and the Business Relationship Management Professional certification exam.

Great Storytelling!

Just like Al’s book reviewed above, Andrew’s and Jerold’s book is packed with great storytelling! Organized into 26 chapters, each describing a ‘relationship law’ plus a section on ways to apply the 26 laws in a variety of situations, each chapter begins with a story. Each story is entertaining and illuminating and sets up one of the relationship laws in a clear and compelling way.

Great Insights on Applying the Laws!

Each chapter concludes with ideas on how to put the law into practice. I found these ideas very helpful and actionable. They make sense—the kinds of things you know you should be doing, but often don’t, or don’t do them as consistently as you should.

A Handbook for Business Relationship Management!

In many ways, this book could be thought of as a handbook for Business Relationship Management (though it is not intended as such as is much more broadly applicable). I found many of the application ideas hit the common traps that the novice Business Relationship Manager falls into. Here’s one example from the Twenty-Second Law, “Become part of your clients’ growth and profits and they’ll never get enough of you.”:

Think about it. If your plumber calls you up and suggests you have lunch to discuss the latest joint-soldering techniques, you would probably decline. [...] But what if your doctor called? “I’ve got your test results back, and you ought to come by so we can discuss them.” I think your response would be, “How soon can you see me?”

Use This Book to Build Your Key Relationship Agendas

The Business Relationship Manager that really uses this book to create and implement an action plan for their key strategic relationship is either:

  1. Going to be very successful in their role, or…
  2. Going to realize that they are not cut out for the Business Relationship Management role.

Either way, the price of the book and the time taken to read it will be well worth it! Even if you conclude you aren’t cut out for the Business Relationship Management role, there are many other ways that relationship building will be important to your work, home and social lives, and these will benefit from the insights that Mr. Sobel and Mr. Panas have shared with us!

Note: My next on-line BRMP Course is being held across 3 Mondays—April 14, 21 and 28, 2014. For details, please click here.

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The Power of Context


kay-dynabook1Context is worth 80 IQ points.”

I’ve repeated this Alan Kay quote many times. (A little research for this post reveals that the actual quote was probably, “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points” or even, “Perspective is worth 80 IQ points”.) Alan Kay was considered by many to be the father of object oriented programing, the personal computer and the windowing graphical user interface. He was also a noted professional jazz guitarist and amateur pipe organ player—a true contemporary renaissance man!

I typically use the quote with new potential consulting clients—I like to gain as much insight into the context for the issues that have brought them to me. But there are many ways the wisdom behind the quote plays out.

The Diamond Model

Many years ago, while I was at Ernst & Young, a colleague introduced me to the Diamond Model—an analytical tool based upon the work of Richard Terry of the University of Minnesota, and expanded by my colleague, Kent Boesdorfer.

Slide1

The Diamond Model suggests five interdependent dimensions to any organization: Mission, Power, Structure, Resources and Culture. Direction flows from the mission—the fundamental purpose of the organization. Mission needs Power—the ability to make and sustain decisions over time and to expend energy needed to satisfy the mission. Power is directed through structure—processes, plans, methods, reporting relationships, and so on. Structure empowers resources—anything needed to accomplish the mission. And all of this plays out in an organizational culture—the shared values and beliefs of the organization.

The Presenting Problem is Not the Real Problem!

As a diagnostic tool for identifying causes of organization issues, the hierarchical nature of Mission→Power→Structure→Resources is important. Organizational issues often manifest themselves at a lower level in that hierarchy than the source of that issue. For example, the familiar cry:

We don’t have enough resources to do this!”

will often have its roots in the methods and organizational forms through which the resources work. Fred Brooks handsomely illustrated this in his landmark book, “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.”

Structural issues will often have root causes in Power, and Power issues will often result from issues with the Mission. And, of course, Culture can shape and even derail the accomplishment of any organizational mission!

The Need for Clarity and Alignment

All the dimensions—Mission, Power, Structure, Resources and Culture must work in alignment—mutually reinforcing each other. Here are some quick illustrations from recent client conversations.

1. Our Relationship Managers keep bumping into the Service Managers—it’s not clear who does what. Do we have the right people in the roles?

Before I assess the people, I ask about the ways the Relationship Managers and Service Managers are organized, the processes and tools they are using? I typically try to get a sense for the culture—was this organization typically siloed? Has much new blood been injected from high-maturity organizations in the last couple of years? I go back to the missions for Relationship Management and Service Management—are these clear and complementary? And I work to understand who holds the power and authority, and to what degree is that power and authority being directed toward the respective missions? Inevitably, there are multiple causal factors, the least of them being “right people in the roles.” Usually, the problems begin with the respective missions.  When those are unclear or inappropriate, everything else will tend to be dysfunctional.

2. We’ve experimented with Agile methods, and had some success, but it just isn’t taking off in our environment. Do we have the right Agile methods?

So, here is an apparently structural problem looking for a structural solution. Rather than be drawn into that rat hole, I probe into the organization’s mission and power. Agile really does represent a very different philosophy about understanding and solving business problems. Most often, Agile methods are introduced as an experiment, but the steps are never taken to reexamine the mission of the organization, and the way initiatives are governed and controlled. This significantly limits the power of the new technology (Agile methods) and confuses any ability to deploy those methods. Changing methods will not make a difference (though it might move the proverbial ‘bump under the carpet.’)

3. We’ve implemented a new IT Governance Board, but the business leaders who were appointed to it are sending low level substitutes and decisions are not being made. How should we adjust the governance model?

The Diamond Model suggests that we first look at the mission for the IT Governance Board—does that make clear to the senior business executives why the governance body exists? In the case I’m referring to here, the mission was never clarified, and business leaders never understood that the governance body they had been drafted into was a business decision-making body that would govern the allocation of significant funds and resources across several business units. Once this was clarified, the executives began to take the governance model seriously, and engaged appropriately.

So, Structure is the context for Resources. Power shapes the context for Structure. Mission sets the context for Power. And Culture shapes everything an organization is trying to achieve—sometimes for the better, but not always!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

My thanks to former colleague Sheila Smith, Omega Point Consulting, for her remarkable filing system and ability to surface documents written nearly 25 years ago!

Note: My next on-line BRMP Course is being held across 3 Mondays—April 14, 21 and 28, 2014. For details, please click here.

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A Secret to Learning – And Why Multi-tasking May Be Rendering Us All Dumb!


multi3Spoiler alert – no new science, breakthrough research or great new insight here – just a personal validation about learning. This is something I think I knew as a student, but somehow forgot (or ignored?) once I got into the demands of my career in particular and life in general. The need to keep many balls in the air in my work, and the emergence of tools and technologies with the power to enable multi-tasking, led me down a somewhat destructive path.

So, consider this post my personal confession and mea culpa – and hopefully, my commitment to focus more.

Lessons from Life

Regular readers or long-term followers of this blog (and bless y’all for that!) know that my two favorite hobbies are scuba diving and playing guitar/bass guitar, and that I sometimes draw on these passions to bring some learning or insight to the world of IT organizational performance.

While I started playing guitar when I was about 10, I gave it up when I went to university, having accepted that I was not going to ‘make it’ as a professional musician, and therefore needed to get a professional degree. I got back into music about 15 years ago, so much of my professional development as a “musician” (and I use that term very loosely, with tongue planted firmly in cheek) has come in the last 15 years.

I started diving 19 years ago, so again, the learning was as a middle-aged adult. Let me take the scuba learning experience first. You tend not to multi-task as a scuba diver – especially while you are learning. This is an easy conclusion to reach – life depends upon it! As a learning diver, there’s quite a lot to think about, and much of it has to do with avoiding death or some very nasty injury (exploding lungs or eyeballs are difficult conditions to treat!) Once you have the experience, it is fine to learn how to handle an underwater camera rig, and how to take wonderful underwater photographs or videos – but you tend not to do that until you have mastered basic scuba skills. So, my scuba learning experience was very much single-tasking. Lots of deep focus (excuse the pun).

I had a similar experience with motorcycling. Again, I had a motorbike as a teenager, but had stopped riding until about 20 years ago, when I got back into it. I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course which taught me a lot I did not know, including:

  1. Most car, bus and truck drivers have not seen you on a motorcycle.
  2. Some of those that do see you want to kill you!
  3. There’s a mental mantra that helps keep motorcyclists alive – Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide and Act. Survival means keeping a total focus on this – a behavior I still practice today, even when driving a car.  It becomes a kind of zen thing – how many potentially dangerous situations can you see coming and be ready to deal with them?

Lessons from the Performing Arts

So, I got somewhat serious about music about 15 years ago, and really serious about 9 years ago. Without going into the reasons why, I recently found myself in a situation where I had to learn the bass guitar parts to five incredibly long and complex progressive rock compositions (by the band Yes, for those who care about such things!) Among the five was one piece of over 20 minutes duration, with many key changes, changes in time signature, bass solos, very fast runs and a host of challenges for a mere mortal like me! And I had to perform these in front of a large audience of Yes fans (where ‘fan’ = ‘fanatic’), in front of members of the band Yes and, in rehearsals, with members of Yes!

I started with my usual practice routine, but it wasn’t working, or at least, it wasn’t working quickly enough. After a couple of weeks practice for 1 hour each evening, I thought hard about why I was not making the progress I needed and was expecting. The reason came to me when I was reading a blog post on multi-tasking – and I realized that as important as this performance was to me, I wasn’t approaching my practice with the right mindset and focus. I was working hard at trying to ‘get through’ the music, rather than feel it, understand it and really learn it. My head had been full of other issues – distractions, mostly, and I allowed them to distract me.

I determined to take a different approach.

  1. I needed a clear break between my work and my practice. In some cases that was 15 minutes meditation. In other cases it was time in my gym to exercise, or take a walk.
  2. Each time I started a practice session, I had a specific learning objective – one small piece that I would loop and play over and over, at first slowly, then gradually coming up to performance speed. I would keep a record of what I was working on and how I was doing.
  3. I turned off all other distractions – email, cell phone, office phone, etc.
  4. My mantra was FOCUS!

Within a couple of weeks I saw real progress. Focus was paying off. I was seeing patterns in the music I had not seen before – patterns that helped with the learning. I was seeing patterns in my playing – how one particularly tricky solo was actually in just 2 playing positions on the guitar neck. Once I visualized the musical patterns and the playing positions, everything clicked, and suddenly, playing that solo was as natural as it could be – suddenly it all made sense!

Are You Really Into the Job You Are Supposed to be Doing?

The reality is that most of us have got into the habit of multi-tasking – talking on the phone while sending emails, for example. And more often than not, our work is suffering. If it is routine, purely physical work, that might be ok. If it is more complex, that might not be ok. If it involves learning, it almost certainly is not ok.

If, heaven forbid, you needed brain surgery, how would you feel if you knew the brain surgeon was going to do the surgery while checking Facebook, talking with a golf buddy and responding to emails?

Do yourself a favor – stop trying to move so fast, and start trying to move effectively and deliberately.

Image courtesy of Discover Your Awesomeness

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